In data analysis, there’s a concept called “regression to the mean.” In essence, it means that outlying data points will, over time, shift towards more middling values — so long as there’s a modicum of luck involved in the outcome. As it turns out, luck is unreliable, and unordinary values that rely on it are hard to repeat. Instead, values will slide towards mediocrity.
Relatedly, remember how cool the Defender used to be?
The old Defender was one of those outlier values. It was big, boxy, rugged and archaic. Choosing a Defender over something like a Land Cruiser was a determined choice, one that a person made with full knowledge in their mind of each and every sacrifice that choice entailed.
And yet, despite the sacrifices, the old Defender had its buyers. No, it had enthusiasts, diehards and proselytizers. People risked meeting the long arm of the law just to bring them into the United States, to get a single sweet taste of that forbidden British fruit. It was weird, it was unique, and it will be remembered forever.
The new Defender is, by all accounts, an objectively better vehicle. It’s more comfortable, smoother, it goes more miles on fewer gallons. It retains the off-road functionality of its older brother, but prospective buyers need to make far fewer sacrifices to buy one.
Of course, that’s why Land Rover made the change. In business, there’s a concept called a barrier to entry — all the little hurdles that a person has to overcome before they can purchase a product. The new Defender has fewer barriers, fewer mental roadblocks, between a buyer and their car. Land Rover will sell approximately a billion of them.
It’s not unlike what happened to Chevy’s old off-road darling, the Blazer. What was once a big, heavy, body-on-frame ‘froader is now just another compact crossover, lost in a sea of identical market entrants. Enthusiasts will complain that the new car doesn’t live up to the heritage set by the original, but Chevrolet will sell as many new Blazers as it can build.
The company doesn’t care. It isn’t here to create something weird, off-kilter, or unique. It’s here to sell cars and make money, and crossovers sell. When every automaker goes for mass-market appeal, car design regresses towards the mean.
Of course, for an automaker, that’s fine. Businesses regard their performance with Key Performance Indicators, specific and measurable metrics that can be used to objectively judge performance. Chevrolet’s KPIs for the Blazer likely have nothing to do with pushing the bounds of automotive design — the company will judge success with units sold, and profit per unit.
Those KPIs are applicable across much of the industry. Land Rover wants to sell Defenders just the same as Chevy wants to sell Blazers. Each one will make the entirely rational business decisions that bring the company further towards that goal, designing and refining their respective cars to create something with the broadest possible market appeal. Each one will delight their respective shareholders with these very smart business decisions, and each one will reap the profits of the choices they’ve made.
And they’ll both end up more generic with each passing year. Regression towards the mean.
The Defender, in new 130 guise, is now a three-row SUV. In that segment, it competes with everything from Jeeps to Toyotas, and Land Rover hopes that the Defender brand cachet will pull it ahead of those other brands. It very well might. After all, it doesn’t require any of those sacrifices from earlier models — it’s, objectively, a better vehicle. To the company, to the shareholders, and to the huge swaths of buyers who would never consider the previous model to bear that name, it’s a step in the right direction.
But for those of us who like novelty, uniquity, identity in our cars, which Defender will we remember in fifty years?